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Counselor’s Corner: Mental ergonomics—are you investing in yourself?

Nov. 13, 2019
Just as you adjust your chair, wear your loupes, and engage in proper posture, consider how you care for your mental health throughout the workday.

As dental hygienists, we are faced with a full spectrum of responsibility—responsibility to make sound clinical choices for our patients, engage in efficient teamwork, and make professional decisions minute by minute, to name a few. Have you ever given much thought to your personal responsibility for ergonomics? Sure, it is the doctor’s duty, as the boss, to provide proper equipment to ensure your physical health and safety, but how much responsibility falls in your lap? Each second we spend chairside with the cervical spine in flexion, elbows bent, and hip flexors engaged, we must decide how to proceed with the best possible outcome for personal health. Repetitive physical behaviors without mindful consideration of long-term use is a recipe for clinical burnout.

As a licensed professional counselor and hygienist who is particularly interested in clinical burnout, I challenge you to also consider your responsibility for mental ergonomics. Just as you adjust your chair, wear your loupes, and engage in proper posture, consider how you care for your mental health throughout the workday.

Even though we are encouraged to leave our personal baggage at the employee entrance, it remains impossible to enter through those doors unattached from emotions and private lives. Whether it is caring for an irrationally anxious patient, navigating a difficult office dynamic, or feeling the physical woes of dental hygiene, the demands of a busy workday can often pose a challenge to mental health.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Debi Dencek, BS, RDH, CEAS, RYT, the inventor of CordEze. As the inventor of a product that promotes physical health and reduces fatigue from ultrasonic and suction cord drag, Dencek is also very connected to how her emotional and mental health affect her daily practice. She believes connecting these three aspects of self allows for longevity and happiness in our demanding career. Being no stranger to the merging of physical, mental, and spiritual health, she is also an ergonomic assessment specialist and yoga instructor. She understands how closely mental and physical health are tied.1

Just as 60% to 96% of dental hygienists report suffering from musculoskeletal disorders that affect the shoulders, neck, back, and wrists,2 hygienists are also increasingly suffering from emotional or mental burnout. As an educator, I hear hygienists speak of elevated anxiety that leads them down the path of leaving clinical work. You might be willing to strap a CordEze on your wrist, wear loupes, and schedule that weekend massage, but are you willing to put in the work to ease mental and emotional fatigue?

As an ergonomic authority, Dencek says that it is crucial to recognize not only the physical pain that comes with clinical work but also the emotional pitfalls that can contribute to wanting to escape the op. She encourages focusing on the spiritual aspect of life and adds that we carry a responsibility to work through these issues to preserve the longevity of our careers. The spiritual component of her work is a powerful tool that has empowered her growth as a hygienist and business owner.

If our physical risk of injury is 20% work design and 80% worker habit, how do these statistics translate to mental well-being? I believe that the mental game of our profession begins with self-awareness and accountability. We have to identify the emotional habits that bind us in repetitive behaviors, just like the physical repetitive behaviors that cause us pain. Mental ergonomics requires investment, adjustments, and willingness to be open to influence. Here are a few tips to consider:

  • Investment—Are you investing in your mental health? Investing in mental ergonomics does not have to have a monetary value, though talking to a licensed counselor can serve as a productive outlet. Take the time to educate yourself about mindfulness. Mindfulness practices actually change your brain to reduce stress and anxiety. There is an abundance of information on mindfulness on the internet that is too extensive to cover in the scope of this article.
  • Adjustments—Just as we make physical adjustments, we also have to make mental adjustments for change to occur. The old saying that insanity is repeating the same behavior but expecting different results rings true. Adjust your life by eliminating toxic people, saying “no” to things that do not bring you joy, and doing the hard work to change bad habits.
  • Willingness to be open to influence—Being open to influence is about being willing to look at yourself and look at other people’s viewpoints. Sometimes other’s viewpoints of us do not match with what we think of ourselves. It is always worth exploring what others think to find out if it holds truth and warrants further self-evaluation.

When we take ownership of our behavior and mental ergonomics, we open the door to change and great growth possibility. Dencek states, “Sometimes personal growth is painful. It is difficult to look at the dysfunctional side of ourselves. Just like changing our physical environment for a better work life, it is necessary for living a full life.”

As you set forth into your practice this week, ask yourself what personal responsibility you have to mental ergonomics. What do you owe yourself and those around you so that you may live out a productive and happy existence? 


  1. Denecek D. Personal interview; 2019.
  2. Johnson CR, Kanji Z. The impact of occupation-related musculoskeletal disorders on dental hygienists. Can J Dent Hyg. 2016;50(2):72-79.
Kandice Swarthout, RDH, LPC, is a 1997 graduate of Texas Woman’s University dental hygiene program. She is currently a full-time faculty member of Collin College’s dental hygiene program in McKinney, Texas, where she teaches community dentistry and research. Swarthout is also a licensed professional counselor trained in crisis and trauma intervention. She holds kettlebell and barbell instructor certifications with StrongFirst School of Strength. Swarthout’s passion is helping dental professionals live out a healthy work-life experience through deep introspection, neuroscience contemplation, and physical self-care. 

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Editor's note: Read Swarthout's monthly column, Counselor's Corner, in the RDH evillage e-newsletter. Subscribe here